There is a famous quote from several hundred years ago that suggests that misinformation can travel across the globe before truth has gotten its running boots on. If we have learnt anything from the modern Internet era, it is that this is a very apt description for how things work. Claims that are surprising, engaging, sensationalist or emotionally manipulative receive many orders of magnitude more likes and shares compared with detailed fact-checking or other forms of skeptical content.
One such persistent set of claims is involved in the Apache attack helicopter gambit. It involves comparing LGBT people and other gender and sexual minorities to someone who thinks that they are an attack helicopter. The gambit wrongly puts a heavy focus on self-identification compared with biological and psychological realities, insinuates that many of these categories are based on things that are not physically possible or delusional, conflates extreme surgical procedures for aesthetic purposes with therapeutic surgery and that a request for basic human rights for trans people is akin to demanding to have the right to murder people arbitrarily. All of these claims are extremely misleading and wrong.
What is the Apache attack helicopter gambit?
The Apache attack helicopter gambit originated on the Internet during 2014 as copy/paste spam that has spread via websites such as Reddit and 4chan. It gained increased attention during the months leading up to the 2016 general election in the United States and February of 2017. Although it has mutated over time, the core content stays roughly the same:
The idea is to mock and make extreme misrepresentation of gender and sexual minorities in the context of LGBT activism. In particular, the reference to plastic surgery and name change suggests that the primarily target is trans people, whereas the mentioning of privilege indicates that it revolves around particular forms of social justice activism.
The gambit is based on at least four central tricks. First, it portrays gender and sexual minorities as being about self-identification rather than biological and psychological realities. Second, it insinuates that gender and sexual minorities are based on something that is physically impossible and involve a delusional belief. Third, it conflates extreme plastic surgery for aesthetic purposes with plastic surgery for therapeutic benefit. Finally, it attempts to depict advocacy for basic human rights for trans people as extreme and unreasonable demands.
Why is the gambit flawed?
The reason why the Apache attack helicopter gambit is flawed is because its four central tricks are factually wrong.
(1) being LGBT is not primarily about self-identification
Being LGBT is not primarily based on transient preferences or self-identification, but about actual biological and psychological realities. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines sexual orientation as:
APA further defines transgender as:
In particular, APA explicitly states in their FAQs to sexual orientation and transgender that it is not merely a matter of self-identification or choice. Thus, being LGBT is not something you are because you have a certain self-identification. Thus, the overt focus on self-identification makes the comparison inaccurate.
(2) being transgender is not physically impossible or a delusion
The human in the analogy believes that they are an attack helicopter. This is portrayed as ludicrous since humans can obviously not be attack helicopters. The insinuation is that this is also the case for transgender people. However, trans people do not actually believe that they have e. g. a different chromosomal configuration than they actually have or other currently impossible things. Instead, they understand that sex and gender is not that simplistic (and involves multiple levels of analysis and many layers of complexity) and that not everyone falls perfectly and neatly into one of two categories.
Furthermore, being transgender is not delusional because being transgender does not in itself constitute a mental disorder, does not involve a delusional belief about e. g. sex chromosomes, does not involve thought disturbances or odd shifts in speech content, does not involve auditory or visual hallucinations and antipsychotics is not an effective or recommended therapeutic for gender dysphoria. This issue was investigated in more detail in an article about how being transgender is nothing like having a psychotic Napoleon delusion. In essence, this is a predecessor to the Apache attack helicopter gambit and both of them are ultimately scientifically erroneous.
(3) extreme aesthetic plastic surgery is not the same as therapeutic surgery
The kind of plastic surgery discussed in the Apache attack helicopter copy/paste spam involves extreme body modification for what is obviously for cosmetic purposes. Those rotary blades and cannons will not in the slightest be functional with the current state of technology. There are also no scientific studies that show that this would be beneficial for anyone who thinks that they are an Apache attack helicopter.
In contrast, gender reassignment surgery is an evidence-based treatment for transgender individuals who suffer from gender identity disorder or gender dysphoria. It is also included in the Standards of Care document compiled by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. Pretending that these two kinds of plastic surgery are the same or even comparable is not reasonable.
(4) basic human rights for trans people are not extreme or unreasonable
People who insist that others allow them to kill people unjustifiably are clearly making extreme and unreasonable demands that should not be granted. However, advocating basic human rights (including legal protection from discrimination that other minority groups enjoy) for trans people is neither extreme nor unreasonable.
The Apache attack helicopter meme is typically used to mock LGBT people or human rights advocacy and likely deployed as a poor attempt at satire. However, because it is so widespread and enormously misleading, it is worth analyzing it from a scientific and skeptical perspective.
The gambit puts too much focus on self-identification over biological and psychological realities. It wrongly insinuates that trans people are somehow delusional when in reality, neither being trans nor having gender dysphoria involves psychotic symptoms. It makes a vulgar conflation between different kinds of plastic surgeries and pretend that a request for basic human rights for trans people is comparable to demanding to have the right to kill people. The gambit is highly misleading and wrong on essentially all of its testable claims.